The Musician's Most Important Skill

All too often we talk about how to practice and perform. You might think that the most important skill a musician could have is great dexterity or, a great imagination, or maybe even great creativity. Where these are important, that there is one skill that is the foundation of all that a musician must do. It's our memory. Memory isn't just used by musicians to remember tons of songs; it's used in every aspect (improvising, composing, performing). Musicians must remember songs, chord progressions, fingerings, lyrics, scales, idioms (licks), performance notes (dynamics, inflections, phrasing, breathing, etc),  recording techniques, engineering facts, song forms, theory, stage moves, gear settings, recording settings, software applications, etc. And this is just the musical applications! This doesn't include any of the marketing, PR, business activities that we have to do on a daily basis. Memory even comes into play in our ear training because ultimately, the ear is using our memory as reference point for all of those chords, intervals and sounds.

It's All In The Repetition

As a musician, the same exercises and drills are repeated over and over again throughout your lifetime. There's a good reason for this. Repetition is simply one of the best (if not the best) way that to learn. Of course all musicians know this, since this principle is shoved down our throats from our first lesson...Did you practice? Did you go over all of the stuff we talked about? Did you do your scales for the millionth time? Did you practice your rhythms (that you've memorized)? We all know that practice makes perfect and the essence of practice is repetition. For some reason though, we don't apply this principle to other areas when we know how effective it is. For example, a lot of musicians will work on music theory, different styles, new chords, new scales etc. but they don't apply this repetition technique. The best way to retain a new scale/chord/technique is to repeat it over and over until it's second nature. There is the proper application of new material which we've talked about before but, for simple retention, repetition can be one of your most effective weapons. Use it daily. One of the most effective things about teaching is the fact that I can enforce this simple technique every week when I see the student. If you're practicing on your own, you're going to have to reinforce this on yourself. Ask yourself what you did the last time you picked up your instrument. What did you do last practice?  Did you practice what you had started? Did you do a little everyday or did you just go through it once? Make sure you do this every time you sit down to practice.

The Four Point Review Method

Once you've learned a new skill, read a book or had a lesson, one of the worst things you can do is just go home and forget about it. Even leaving it until the next day isn't a good idea. There is a method of reviewing material that will go a long way in absorbing and memorizing new ideas. Every time you come across something that you want to retain and use in the future, go through this learning regimen.

Step 1 - Input: Like mentioned before, it's not enough to simply read or scan the information that is presented. You must engage the mind immediately. Get into the mindset that you're going to immerse yourself in the task at hand. It's the same with learning almost any new skill, the more your mind is engaged in the technique, the easier it will be to retain and use that information. You engage the mind by asking questions, repeating important facts out loud, making notes, circling and highlighting important points, and most of all, summarizing what you've just learned. Let's look at a couple of those in detail.

Engage First

The most important thing about trying to remember facts and ideas is to engage the mind in the first place. This may seem obvious but you have to be working the brain a certain way right from the beginning to make sure that the facts are retained. It's like trying to remember somebody's name when first being introduced. It's important that you go through a couple of simple steps or you may end up paying attention to the color of their shirt instead of remembering their name. Simply reading something or passively skimming over it is ineffective in retaining information. Reading and skimming over material are only effective when you've engaged the mind in the right way. It's all too easy to just read over something without remembering anything. How many times have you ended up reading the same paragraph over and over because your mind was elsewhere? This happens more often than you think. Try this: read over some material, or a couple of blogs or a couple of articles like normal. Just read them like you normally would, don't do anything different. (You might try harder to retain info this time because you know whats coming next). Now close whatever material that you had open and try to remember what you've just read. How much can you remember? If you've read a dozen blog posts, how many do you remember? Do you even remember the titles? How about the pictures? How many of those do you remember? Because we consume so much information in a day, we start to consume our reading material like our television; as a casual observer.

The Non-Casual Observer

Now we're going to take the same material but this time we're going to engage our mind. Keep in mind that this isn't something that we usually do automatically so we're going to have to make a conscious effort. There are a number of ways to retain information, to learn and to be able to recall it at will. Numerous books have been written on the many ways of doing this. There are ways to retain lists, physical surroundings, technical information, graphical information etc. Most involve using all of your senses in one way or another. Others try and figure out how you process information and use that to your advantage. Do some research on these and try them out. You may find one works better for you than others. The way you learn is usually a personal thing and one method doesn't apply to everyone. We'll look at just one way to help us retain all that we read.


When you first get the material, give it a quick once over. That means if you have a book or even a chapter of a book, go over the entire thing at once. Go to the end and see what you're supposed to learn. If it's a scale or theory, look at the final examples to see what the point is. By doing this, you're getting an idea of the overall thought process right from the beginning. You'll notice that in some books, there is a summary at the beginning of each chapter as well as one at the end detailing all that was covered in a couple of sentences. You should be doing the same thing when you start with any new material. Second, get rid of any other things that may be on your mind. It's a standard thing to close your door and turn off any distractions when really getting down to work. There's a good reason for this. You want to do this every time you sit down to learn. Except don't stop at just that. Try and shut off your mind too. Empty your mind of any other thoughts if possible. That's why it's good to get an overall view of all of the material when you start, it gets your mind into the task at hand. Try and keep this focus. We lose concentration easily and quite consistently. Keeping focus is a skill that must be learned and worked on. Third, keep an internal dialogue about the material at hand going on. Why is don't like this and not that? Why do this at all? Is there another way? How do I do these things? By keeping your mind engaged with this dialogue, it'll be easier to keep focused.

Step 2 - Organization

We've talked about having a separate method of collecting ideas and putting things together for your practice sessions. I use a binder that I put all of my notes in, reference material and practice schedules. When learning new material, it's important to have a place where you can make notes but also be able to come back to. Remember the review is going to be really important. Get together a notebook or use your favorite method be it a laptop or anything else you use. It's important that you have some organization to your notes. That way, when you come back to them, it's simply a matter of going through a quick review. Looking for notes, forgetting where you put something, or not understanding what you've written will just get in the way. You can make notes any way you like, just make sure you do them. This is something that we lose after we leave school. Notes are great for organizing things in our mind and reviewing what we've learned. Retention is difficult without these. Also, try and make time for a review everyday. After a while the reviews will be less often but it's important that you're consistent with this. We know that the best way to learn is by repetition. Make it so the repetition is effortless. You simply go to the material everyday, and review. I'm not just talking about organizing the written material but organizing your time.

Notes and Mind Maps

One great way to engage the mind and try organizing things in your head is to create notes and mind maps. Mind maps can be used for anything...even music. It's about how you put it together. Once you learn some new facts, put them together in a mind map and see how they all connect and make sense. Mind maps are really just another way to make notes. Instead of having lists though, we have a graphical representation. This is more like our brain functions so it's more effective than long lists and straight text. Mind maps also use keywords which are another great learning tool. I find that any type of graphical reference always helps. Mind maps have a standard way they are put together. I follow this but also have tons of other notes and diagrams I make to understand. Tests have shown that material is retained much better when it is written by hand as opposed to typing or other input.


Like mentioned above, it's important that the material is reviewed consistently. This is one of the most important parts of learning. It's the reason why I'll go over the same material again and again with my students. That means having a schedule and going over all of the material everyday. It's important to go through these steps every time you open your notes.

Step 3 - Review

Of course there is no retention without review. That means not just going over the material but going over it consistently and making sure that you understand what you're learning. Go through the same mental processes that you went through when you first learned the material. The consistency of review is important also. When you first learn something new, it's important that you do a review almost immediately after learning. That means if you've learned something is a classroom, do a review that day when you get home. This is the most important review of all of them. Just doing this will increase your retention and understanding tenfold. Go over all of the material you learned that day. This doesn't have to take hours, a half hour will do. Just make sure that you engage your mind like you did when you first learned the material. Once you've done the first review, you can wait until the next day before you do another. Do this review like the first. Once you've done these first two reviews, you're well on your way to retaining the info. You can wait a couple of days before doing another review but don't wait longer than that. After doing all of these reviews the first week, you can just do a review once a week for the next month, you should be able to retain all of the information this way. Once you've done the first month, you should only need to do a review once a month. I try and go over all of the material once a year. If you have tons of songs and an extended repertoire, you may have to tweak your review methods depending how much material there is. Remember that if material isn't reviewed often enough, it will have to be relearned when the time comes.

Don't Just Regurgitate

It's usual for most people to review material simply by reading over it again. There are more effective ways to remember. One is the mind map method mentioned earlier. Another effective method is to create quizzes and/or try to recreate what you've learned. This means taking the ideas learned and try to write down and explain all that's been covered. Once you've gone over the material, go back over it in your head. What's the general point? What was learned? Are there new definitions and terms to know? Did you understand what you read? Is there something that you didn't understand? If there was, write it down. You can come back to that later. Once you've gone over the material, close everything, take a short break and then give yourself a small test. All you need to do is write down, play and explain what you just learned. By putting it in your own words, it will help with not only your retention but your understanding also. Music can be confusing, by putting things into your own words, it helps create your own understanding of the material. You'll find most musicians have their own opinion about quite a few things in music. This is because we've all taken the same concepts and organized them and made them our own.

Focus and Engage

You can see that once again we've just touched the surface of what we can do to use our memory better. There are a couple of techniques here that you'll want to use again and again. The better you get at retaining information, the better you'll  get at remembering songs, fingerings, scales, chords etc. This sort of technique will permeate all of your playing and make you a better musician overall.